|The Center for Educational Research and Development|
Editorial: San Jose
Mercury News, November
By Joanne Jacobs-Editorial Staff
California's multimillion dollar drug education
program isn't stopping kids from trying drugs. But its underlying
message -all substance use is abuse-erodes the credibility of
teachers, and alienates students most at risk of serious drug
So says a three-year, 5000 student study conducted for the State Department of Education, which has decided not to publish the results. It's a disturbing conclusion, but not surprising. Most research shows that school drug prevention programs don't prevent drug use, through they may affect knowledge, attitudes and refusal skills in the short term. Despite all the just-say-no assemblies and Red Ribbon Weeks and police officers in the classroom, more teenagers are using drugs.
Something's not working. Wouldn't it make
sense to take a fresh, honest look at what we're doing?
Following federal guidelines, California's
drug education programs preach a strict "no use" message
to students. They hear the message, says the study by Joel H.
Brown, of the Pacific Institute for Research and Evaluation, and
Marianne D'Emidio-Caston of UC-Santa Barbara. But the message
doesn't fit students' experience of the world., in which they
see differences in the way different people use drugs and alcohol.
So they reject the message -and sometimes reject the messenger
as well. In elementary school, only 10 percent of students reject
anti-drug programs, says Brown. That rose to 30 percent in the
middle school. By high school, 90 percent of students responded
to anti-drug programs with "angry apathy." "Oh
they lie to you so that you don't do the drugs! They think your're
dumb!" said a middle school student in a focus group interview.
A high school student said his mother sometimes
drinks at parties: "On Mothers' Day she totally had a good
time, but she didn't drive home. She felt sick in the morning,
but she had a good time and that's fine." At school though,
"They teach us that everything is bad! It's just flat out
For students who are doing well, "the
loss of credible authority in the form of teachers and police
officers is not alienating," the study says. These students
believe their well-being is motivating the message, even if they
don't believe what they're told. "At-risk" students,
already on the edge of the school community, are pushed farther
away. "They are not in this for helping you," said one.
"They are in for getting rid of the bad kids, and jus having
all good kids in school."
Virtually all knew that students caught
with drugs at school would be punished with detention, suspension,
or expulsion. Few knew of any heal available for drug users. The
state's program, Drug, Alcohol, and Tobacco Education, or DATE,
is supposed to target high risk youth, but the study found little
individualized help. "At risk" and "thriving"
students sat through the same programs. "Counseling is offered
the least; and it's what's needed the most," says Caston.
"But it's the most expensive service, because it can't be
delivered en masse."
The Department of Education won't publish
the $3 million survey. Consultant Jana Slater says it's "irrelevant"
because federal guidelines for drug education have been revised."Nothing
significant has changed," Brown responds. "I haven't
seen any change," Jordan Horowitz, a Southwest Regional Laboratory
analyst who favorably reviewed the study for DOE. Getting government
agencies to accept research "has been an ongoing problem
from the start. People believe very strongly in doing the types
of things that have been shown not to work."
The National Institute of Justice commissioned
a "meta-analysis" of the very popular, very expensive
DARE (Drug Abuse Resistance Education) program, which brings police
officers into schools. The study show DARE doesn't prevent drug
use. The Institute of Justice refused to publish it. DARE defenders
now say the program is being revised, so the results are irrelevant.
Federal police focused on risk factors, trying to fix students'
deficiencies so they won't want to use drugs. But reducing risks
doesn't reduce drug use says Brown and Caston. And experimenting
with risky things is normal for adolescents. Most come through
without an addiction, a conviction or a baby. Some get in serious
Because of the absolutist "no-use"
dictate, says Brown, "there's no opportunity to find out
if harm reduction can be successful." Harm reduction tries
to help students make responsible choices, acknowledging that
not everybody will choose total abstinence. The "designated
driver" is a harm-reduction idea. So is giving teenagers
access to condoms, which is, of course, wildly controversial.
"How do we advocate careful use of
illegal substances?" asks Slater, adding that alcohol is
not legal for minors. But most teenagers try drugs and alcohol.
In a state survey, nearly half of seniors admitted trying an illegal
drug; nearly 90 percent said they used alcohol. Telling them that
all substance use leads to the gutter will not be persuasive.
Scare tactics don't work, agrees L.D. Hirschklau, the Drug Alcohol
and Tobacco Education coordinator the Los Gatos-Saratoga High
School District. "Do you remember when they told us marijuana
would make us crazy?"
Kids will listen to peers or to someone
a few years older who's "been there or been on the borderline,"
she says. Horowitz agrees: "Students want to hear from people
who've been through it. But the federal government won't fund
that kind of program. They don't want kids to think you can make
it through." Illicit drug use by high school students has
been increasing, according to a federally sponsored survey. In
1992, 35 percent of 12th graders had used illegal drugs in the
previous year; that's up 45 percent; Marijuana use among eighth-graders
had doubled. Responds Health and Human Services Secretary Donna
Shalala: We need to do more of the same, only more vigorously.
Joanne Jacobs is a member of the Mercury News editorial board. Her column appears on Mondays and Thursdays. You may reach her at 750 Ridder Park Dr., San Jose CA, 95190, by fax at 408.271.3793, or post your views in her Mercury Center message folder. Keyword: MC Talk, then pick Talk to the Mercury News and scroll down to her name.
Copyright San Jose Mercury News, 1999
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